News / Toronto

GTA sexual-assault crisis centres facing a crisis of their own: Wait times

Toronto-area centres have been flooded with requests after #MeToo without being flooded with the resources to deal with them.

Deb Singh, a counsellor at Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape,  said wait times have ballooned from five months to 15 in the last year.

Eduardo Lima / Metro

Deb Singh, a counsellor at Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, said wait times have ballooned from five months to 15 in the last year.

Ontario's sexual-assault crisis centres are in crisis, advocates say.

They faced a fresh wave of demand after the Jian Ghomeshi affair. Now, with non-stop media coverage of sexual assault and the rise of the #MeToo movement, it's a tsunami.

In January last year, the wait for individual counselling at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape was reported at five months. Today it's 15 months, said counsellor Deb Singh.

Staff and volunteers working the 24/7 help line are reporting about twice as many calls per shift since about mid-October, she added.

Singh said staff overtime has "increased exponentially in the last six months" but they don't get paid for it and are left with, "more work, same money."

It's similar at the Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton and Area, said director Lenore Lukasik-Foss: a 100-per-cent increase in help line calls and a doubling of the therapy waiting list over the past year to 18 months. The wait was two or three months; now it's six.

“It's not like we can do something differently. We need more counselling staff,” Lukasik-Foss said. "I'm starting to feel overwhelmed.”

But the flood of interest has not come with a flood of new resources to deal with it.

Funding introduced in Ontario's 2015 It's Never Okay initiative averaged about $40,000 per centre annually; many got less.

“That is not one woman’s salary here. We have not been able to hire one new counsellor in more than a decade," Singh said.

The advent of #MeToo has made survivors both more ready and more desperate to see a counsellor with the “rare and critical skill set” to handle this kind of trauma, Singh said, adding even those who can afford a private therapist may struggle to find someone suitable.

Lukasik-Foss, who is chair of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, said many survivors only seek help once “things are going really poorly” — they're suicidal, extremely depressed or abusing substances.

Nevertheless, she was adamant that people in need should continue calling. She said if the situation's urgent, centres will squeeze someone in, and there's always help lines, which provide a listening ear, if not actual therapy.

A 23-year-old Humber College student Metro has agreed not to name because she is a sexual assault victim, said having to wait for support services was agonizing.

In May of 2014 she was violently sexually assaulted by a stranger in broad daylight. Over the next month, her mental health spiralled.

“I can’t even put into words how hopeless, worthless and depressed I was feeling," she said.

She went for a consultation at a Brampton, Ont. sexual-assault centre and was wait-listed for therapy. She attended one excellent group session, but it was the last for several months.

She eventually found a therapist covered by her mother's insurance, who was “OK” despite not being a sexual-assault specialist.    

She finally got a call back with a counselling appointment — in November, six months after the attack.

The centre confirmed this is completely plausible; their waiting list has been as long as 10 months.

“I had to get better by myself. It made me so mad at the lack of support and resources," the student said.

Her “gruelling loneliness” was worsened by friends who didn't know how to talk to her. For a while, she was afraid to leave the house. She said she needed someone who understood what she was going through – and the solidarity of #MeToo came too late.

“I just wish I had this global support three years ago.”

What are sexual assault centres?

Sometimes known by the older term “rape-crisis centres,” these community agencies are funded by the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, supplemented by donations, the United Way and some local municipalities. They provide public education, free one-on-one counselling, support groups, court accompaniment and 24-hour help lines that survivors can call to get resources and tell their stories to a supportive listener. They serve women over the age of 16.

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